Ferguson Jenkins was just 24 when he pitched in his first all-star game. It was 1967, and the six-foot, five-inch native of Chatham, Ont., was in only his second full season in the major leagues playing for the Chicago Cubs. Now 48, he recalls feeling anxious and alone on the pitching mound that summer day. Jenkins entered the game in the fourth inning with a 1-0 lead, and at one point found himself facing pinch hitter Mickey Mantle, the famed New York Yankees slugger, with the tying run on first base with two outs. Walter Alston, the manager of the National League team, walked out from the dugout to calm his young pitcher. Recalled Jenkins: “He said, ‘You know who the pinch hitter is, don’t you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, it’s Mickey Mantle.’ So he said, ‘Just throw strikes.’ ” Jenkins did, and Mantle, now in the Hall of Fame, struck out.
Jenkins, who joins Mantle in the Hall of Fame this month, struck out five other batters in his three innings that day, tying an all-star game record set by Carl Hubbell in 1934. But not all
of Jenkins’s experiences have been so happy. His mother, who died of cancer in 1970 at age 52, never saw her son play in the big leagues— she became blind while giving birth to Jenkins in 1942. And in January, his wife, Maryanne, 31, died as a result of injuries sustained in a car accident. Earlier, in 1980, Jenkins’s career almost came to a sudden halt after he was convicted in a Brampton, Ont., court of possessing three grams of cocaine found in his suitcase at Toronto international airport. But the court granted him an absolute discharge.
On the diamond, where Jenkins’s command of his pitches usually allowed him to control the events of a game, he quietly compiled an astounding record. In nearly 19 seasons with the Cubs, Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox, he won 284 games, struck out 3,192 batters, was selected for three more all-star games, won the Cy Young Award in 1971 as the National League’s best pitcher and won 20 or more games for six straight seasons. Because of those accomplishments, Jenkins will become the first Canadian inducted into the Baseball
Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., on July 21.
Jenkins was a gangly teenager when Gene Dziadura, a scout for the Philadelphia Phillips, saw him playing for a local Chatham team. Dziadura was impressed, but told Jenkins he had to improve his upper-body strength in order to make it to the big leagues. Jenkins took his advice and began a regimen of splitting firewood, even though his parents’ home had no fireplace. Philadelphia gave him $7,500 to sign a contract in 1961, and he played 3Vz seasons in the minor leagues before joining the Phillies in 1965. Although he performed well in seven relief appearances, he was traded early the next season to Chicago, then managed by Leo Durocher. A few years later, the usually acerbic Durocher, who played for 17 years in the majors before managing for another 24, said: “Jenkins is one of the best pitchers in baseball, ever—I include them all.”
Elected: Still, Jenkins nearly failed to make the Hall of Fame, whose members are elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America. He fell short of the required 75 per cent of the votes in his first two years of eligibility in 1989 and 1990, and some baseball writers said that his cocaine-possession conviction hurt his chances. But Bruce Prentice, president of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in Toronto, says that the writers may have initially overlooked Jenkins because of his unassuming personality. Added Prentice: “Jenkins never made much noise about his accomplishments. He just went out and did his job.” Finally, in January, he was elected by one vote.
But his elation was short-lived. On Jan. 12, four days after his election, Jenkins’s wife died suddenly. She had been severely injured in a December automobile accident, but doctors expected her to recover. “It took a while to grasp that I was left without a partner,” he told Maclean’s recently. “I had thought that Maryanne and I would be around together for a long while, and maybe have some more children.” His father, Ferguson Sr., 82, said that while his son usually recovered quickly from emotional setbacks, “he still hasn’t gotten over that.”
Since Maryanne’s death, Jenkins has stayed for the most part at his 160-acre ranch in central Oklahoma, where he raises quarter horses and hunting dogs. He bought the ranch after selling his 100-acre farm near Chatham in 1988, and limits his public appearances in order to maximize the time he spends with his 22-month-old daughter, Samantha, and 11year-old Raymond, Maryanne’s son from a previous marriage. He also has three daughters from his first marriage who five in Chatham. Still, he says that he would like to return to baseball, and he has talked with several teams, including the Toronto Blue Jays, about possible coaching positions. At the same time, he says that he is looking forward to taking his father with him to Cooperstown for the induction ceremonies. Said Jenkins: “I always said I was playing for my father and myself.” Maybe then, Jenkins can set aside his grief and celebrate a triumphant baseball career.
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